Sinbad is about Sinbad (mind status: blown), a deceitful, pilfering, as-womanizing-as-he-can-be-while-staying-family-friendly pirate. Think Captain Jack Sparrow but much better because he’s not played by Johnny Depp. Except he wasn’t always that way, and Sinbad truly is is tested when an old friend puts his life for him, trusting the dastardly pirate to do the same and go on a dangerous journey and challenge Eris, the god of chaos. It is a criminally underappreciated film, and is right up there with Cowboy Bebop in traditional animation that puts modern computer work to shame.
But what I’m talking about here isn’t the movie as a whole, or even just the animation quality. It’s specifically the shot composition. The way Sinbad handles its “camera” makes the majority of the runtime feel very contained, as if there’s not going on in the world beyond this series of events. This isn’t a criticism; for a movie to pull this off while the majority of scenes take place on a boat in open waters is very impressive, and must have taken deliberate effort by the animation team. There are a number of techniques used to achieve this, and I’d just like to run through them.
There is only one set in the movie that is solid land (unless you count ice, or Chaos Realm, but we’ll get to those), Syracuse, a coastal city in Sicily, that I really don’t know anything else about so I’ll stop talking about it before I say something stupid. Though right next to an ocean, the camera around here is always turned inward, at the cliffs and building of the city itself. It both avoids looking at the open water and the larger world it implies, and doesn’t show any connection to other in land cities. Syracuse is designed with a curvature, showing a concave face to the sea. This way, you see the city as a contained little space, while cliffs block out anything beyond. Scenes that take place within the city are usually quick to give glimpses of the coast and ocean through windows, making sure not to imply that there is something more than what you see in this establishing shot.
Similar techniques are used during an icy mountain portion, focusing on the mountain itself rather than the world behind it, which is at points made easier by the action in the scene requiring focus on specific objects. And in the Chaos Realm parts I mention earlier, dunes, sand blown by the wind, and Eris’s smoke do the job of containing the shots.
Finally, the boat scenes. Despite this being the most prevalent setting and by far hardest to contain because of the whole open ocean on all directions thing, only two techniques were needed. First, high angle shots. It’s simple, yet effective; by having the camera look down, even a little bit, on the scene, it effectively limits how far the scene can extend away from the ship.
Second a high density of characters and objects. Again, a very simple but very effective technique. By having characters take up the majority of the screen, the audience can’t see much else. The same is done with objects, and even the ship itself. A lot of the on-boat scenes that take place outside are on the lower part of the deck, so that the raised bridge deck blocks out the view.
So that’s how Sinbad contains its shots, but why are they contained? Well, to contain the story. While the movie is certainly an adventure, it’s a very straight forward one. Here’s a little set up, some back story, and bam! We have a goal and a destination before pushing off of land. And the movie sticks to that. No side stories, no detours; just a series of trials to overcome while continuing in one direction. In other words, there’s no need for an expanded world. There’s no need to distract the audience by having them thing “I wonder what’s over that horizon.” By containing the shots to the immediate events and characters, that is where it keep the audience’s attention. Mostly.
There is a point in the film where it throws away all the conventions I just talked about. And that happens right at the end. Once the conflict is resolved, and the ship sets sail for unknown new journeys, the horizon is finally an area of interest. Done telling its story, the movie sets the world beyond free, and is able to close on a note of more traditional, big world adventure.
Don’t Lose Your Way